Dispute Over US Nuke in the Netherlands: Who Pays For An Accident?

By August 29, 2013

Air transport of nuclear weapons
Who pays for a crash of a nuclear weapons airlift from Volkel Air Base?

By Hans M. Kristensen

Only a few years before U.S. nuclear bombs deployed at Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands are scheduled to be airlifted back to the United States and replaced with an improved bomb with greater accuracy, the U.S. and Dutch governments are in a dispute over how to deal with the environmental consequences of a potential accident.

The Dutch government wants environmental remediation to be discussed in the Netherlands United States Operational Group (NUSOG), a special bilateral group established in 2003 to discuss matters relating to the U.S. deployment of nuclear weapons in the Netherlands.

But the United States has refused, arguing that NUSOG is the wrong forum to discuss the issue and that environmental remediation is covered by the standard Status of Forces Agreement from 1951.

The disagreement at one point got so heated that a Dutch officials threatened that his government might have to consider reviewing US Air Force nuclear overflight rights of the Netherlands if the United States continue to block the issue from being discussed within the NUSOG.

The dispute was uncovered by the Brandpunt Reporter of the TV station KRO (see video and also this report), who discovered  three secret documents previously released by WikiLeaks (document 1, document 2, and document 3).

The documents not only describe the Dutch government’s attempts to discuss – and U.S. efforts to block – the issue within NUSOG, but also confirm what is officially secret but everyone knows: that the United States stores nuclear weapons at Volkel Air Base.

Michael Gallagher, the U.S. Charge d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Hague, informed the U.S. State Department that environmental remediation is “primarily an issue of financial liability” and discussing it “potentially a slippery slope.” During on e NUSOG meeting, Dutch civilian and military participants were visibly agitated about the U.S. refusal to discuss the issue, and Gallagher warned that “a policy of absolute non-engagement is untenable, and will negatively impact our bilateral relationship with a strong ally.”

Gallagher predicted that the Dutch would continue to raise the issue, and said the Netherlands was ahead of the other European countries that host U.S. nuclear weapons on their territories in having signed and implemented the NUSOG. Unlike Germany, Belgium, Italy and Turkey, the Netherlands was the only country that had raised the issue of remediation in a forum such as NUSOG, but Gallagher warned that the other countries would raise the issue of remediation in the future as similar nuclear weapons operational groups are established.

gallager-timmermans
Charge d’Affaires Michael Gallagher shakes hands with Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans, who wants U.S. nuclear weapons removed from the Netherlands.

The United States has deployed nuclear weapons in the Netherlands since April 1960 and currently deploys an estimated 10-20 nuclear B61 bombs in underground vaults inside 11 aircraft shelters at Volkel Air Base. The weapons are under the custody of the US Air Force’s 703rd Munitions Support Squadron (MUNSS), a 140-personnel unit that secures and maintains the weapons at Volkel.

In a war, the U.S. nuclear bombs at Volkel would be handed over to the Dutch Air Force for delivery by Dutch F-16 fighter-bombers of the 1st Fighter Wing. The Netherlands is one of five non-nuclear NATO countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey) that have this nuclear strike mission, which clearly violates the spirit of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

eurobomb
A B61 nuclear bomb is loaded onto a C-17 cargo plane. Improved B61-12 bombs are scheduled to be deployed to Volkel at the end of the decade.

From 2019 (although delays are expected), the U.S. Air Force would begin to deploy the new B61-12 nuclear bomb to Volkel and the five other bases in Europe that currently store the old B61 types. The B61-12, which is scheduled for production under a $10 billion-plus program, will have improved military capabilities compared with the weapons currently stored at the bases.

The U.S.-Dutch dispute over remediation is but the latest political irritant in the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, a deployment nearly 200 B61 bombs at five bases in six countries that costs about $100 million a year but with few benefits. President Obama has promised “bold reductions” in U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Volkel Air Base would be a good place to start.

This publication was made possible by grants from the New-Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

Categories: Arms Control, NATO, Nuclear Weapons, United States